Will Fewer Thanksgiving Guests Mean No Holiday Weight Gain?

COVID-19 holiday season kicks off, unfortunately.

Posted Nov 22, 2020

Something was missing from my conversations with friends over the last two weeks. In past years, we would be asking each other, “How many people are coming for Thanksgiving?” and “Are you doing all the cooking yourself?” and “How many pies have you made and already frozen?” But now no one is talking about Thanksgiving except for a passing reference to the return home of a college student, or a lament about unmade plans to see anyone until “…who knows when?”

Even the supermarkets seem subdued. To be sure, shelves of pumpkin pie ingredients, displays of packaged stuffing mix, cans of cranberry sauce unearthed from some storage area, and glass jars of sludge passing for turkey gravy remind the shopper that the national eating holiday is once again almost here. But in the market one sensed that the shopper really isn’t interested in making an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner for the same people in the household who have been eating at home since March. It seems like a lot of work for yet another supper.

“Just thinking about what to do with the leftovers if I am making a large Thanksgiving dinner for five gives me indigestion,“ a friend complained. “Usually I have 20 or more people for the meal, but now it is just us and one is a vegetarian. I am tempted to make chicken. How are we going to eat a large turkey?“

Like all the other COVID-19 driven changes we have been forced to make this year, we must accept the reasons for an intimate, small, guest-less Thanksgiving and hope next year will be better. Those of us fortunate enough to have healthy families have much for which to be thankful. And for those upon whom COVID-19 has wrought sadness and suffering, not having the customary guests at Thanksgiving and the abundant foods hardly seems worth discussing.

No one knows when we will return to our previous holiday traditions, but it is worth considering whether this hiatus in large gatherings, big meals, and excessive food intake might have some beneficial after-effects. People are not cooking massive turkeys so we don’t have the anxiety over how to cook the bird in the seemingly endless non-traditional ways (deep frying, brining, stuffing it with smaller animals but not puppies). If only four-six people or fewer are eating together, they probably are not going to be served several appetizers containing cream, mayonnaise, or cheese. The “chef” of the household is also unlikely to prepare six or seven side dishes, basically one for each guest. Maybe there will be fewer butter-drenched, sugar-infused, marshmallow-topped vegetable casseroles, or string beans coated with canned cream of mushroom soup and garnished with canned onion strings. What will be the point of putting out dishes of nuts and chocolate for the guests to nibble on as they watch post-meal football if there are no guests? The family knows where the nuts and chocolates are stored. Or maybe these high-calorie nibbles won’t be purchased since there won’t be any guests.

A small meal means cleaning up the kitchen won’t take hours, require a team of relatives and friends, and generate the need to find enough containers to store leftovers. This will leave time, weather permitting, for a post-meal walk.

The result could be fewer calories than normal consumed at the Thanksgiving meal, and perhaps some exercise to work off those calories. Weight gain foiled!

And there could be an additional benefit to our socially restricted Thanksgiving, namely fewer people dreading the emotional cost of being with family members whom they would rather avoid. Every November many of my weight-loss clients would become upset at participating in the Thanksgiving meal. Their worries ranged from, “How do I stay on my diet?” to “What do I say to (name of the relative) when he/she criticizes my weight?” And those whose weight gain was a side effect of their medication for emotional disorders were even more distressed. “I know I am twenty pounds heavier than last year,” one of my clients told me, “but how am I going to explain that I was clinically depressed to a table full of guests?” It was not uncommon for many to gain weight during the Thanksgiving weekend, especially if they were staying with family because of the stress they were confronting. This year allows them to avoid sharing the Thanksgiving meal with those whose presence in the past has caused such stress.  A friend who lives alone said she was happy she could stay home, eat a turkey sandwich, and watch The Crown on Netflix rather than be part of an inevitable contentious family meal.   

Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. He wanted to set aside a day to express national gratitude for the Union Army’s victory at Gettysburg. This year gratitude may be a difficult emotion to express, given the suffering the pandemic is causing all of us. Maybe a subdued, small Thanksgiving will give us time to focus not on the elaborate food, the table decorations, or the wine but something fundamental: gratitude that we are here and able to celebrate this holiday.